LearnProjects Gone Bad Part 2: 4 Ways to Avoid Projects Gone Bad


Adam Clark
writes on June 21, 2013

This is part two in a two-part series on Projects Gone Bad. We looked at what to do when a project has already taken a turn for the worst. Next, we’ll look at how to avoid this problem and keep projects running smoothly.

I run a small web shop called Bottlerocket and over the years, I’ve found myself in situations where a project has not gone as planned and my client is unhappy. Sometimes it’s because I made a bad choice in taking on a client that wasn’t the best fit or with whom there were red flags that I ignored. Most of the time, however, it comes down to one thing: expectations.

How you set and meet expectations has everything to do with how your client will “feel” about you and your work.

Suppose I show you a hotel room and in preparation I say, “You’re going to love it; it’s a honeymoon suite.” You walk in and see an average hotel room and think, “What a dump.” But what if before walking into the exact same room, I said, “You need to be prepared; this is a jail cell.” You walk in and think, “Hey, this is pretty nice.” Why? Because your expectations where set differently.

Here are a few ways to manage expectations in a way that will not only keep projects from going bad, but leave your clients feeling wowed.

Under-promise and over-deliver

It’s a tried-and-true business principle: under-promise and over-deliver. A client can feel great or terrible with the exact same work, depending on how you set their expectations.

For example:

Bad: You promise a mansion and deliver a two-bedroom house.

Good: You promise a studio apartment and deliver a two-bedroom house.

You delivered the exact same work, but the client feels let down with option 1 and ecstatic with option 2. It’s the same principal at play in the analogy above about the hotel room.

A simple and effective way to do this is with your timelines. If a project will take two weeks to complete, give the client and estimate of three weeks, but still deliver in two. It’s subtle, but the impact is huge.

Always meet deadlines

Not meeting deadlines is a great way to kill a project. It’s important that your clients can take you at your world. Your reputation depends on it.

It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it. ~ Benjamin Franklin

When you miss deadlines, you do the opposite of step one; you over-promise and under-deliver. You may think it’s not a big deal if you’re one day late. You may even have a really good reason for missing your deadline. But, it doesn’t matter. Do whatever you have to do to meet your deadlines.

When I first started freelancing, I was terrible with time management. Because of this, I would often find myself one or two days from a deadline with more work than I could accomplish. Instead of miss the deadline, I would pull all-nighters to get it done. All-nighters suck. But I turned in the work on time and my clients were happy.

Pulling all-nighters is not sustainable and is a terrible way to do business. And if you’ve planned well, you shouldn’t have to do something so drastic. However, it’s worth doing whatever you have to do to deliver on time.

The practical application here is the same as in step one. Pad your timelines enough so that you can deliver early.

Respond quickly

Have you ever tried to get a hold of someone and couldn’t? Did you feel valued or taken for granted? If you are difficult to reach, your clients will feel like you don’t value them.

Respond quickly to your clients inquiries. I set a goal when I started to always answer client emails the day I received them. I have office hours and I respect those, but I do respond to emails and calls before I leave the office.

Even if you don’t have an answer to an inquiry, just send a quick note letting your client know you’ve received their email and are looking into it. This builds a lot of trust and confirms to your client that you value them.

Be transparent

You don’t ever want your client to feel like you don’t have their back or like they can’t trust you. This will lead to micro-management and quickly turn a good project into a bad one.

One way to do this is to be transparent. There are different degrees of transparency in relationships, but what I mean is basically, be yourself. Be authentic. Let your personality come through in your engagements with your clients. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re all business, go with that. Transparency builds trust.


Under-promise and over-deliver, always meet deadlines, respond quickly and be transparent. These are four ways you can set and exceed your client’s expectations. It takes a lot of work, but it’s much easier than trying to fix a project once it’s gone bad.

How have you kept projects from going bad? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


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One Response to “Projects Gone Bad Part 2: 4 Ways to Avoid Projects Gone Bad”

  1. Important work-life lessons here that most learn the hard way.

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